Our daily reading habits—and almost all literate people read something daily—will influence our literary reading habits, just as watching television, surfing the Internet, or playing video games affect our reading habits today, altering our visual and aural musculature and the parts of the brain trained to read. Automated collecting replaces browsing as a literary activity or research tool, which does not in itself diminish either experience. It does, however, alter the experience by presenting a different “interface”, generally a long list of possible and related bits of information. After reading Elizabeth Swanstrom’s discussion of reading as gathering on the Transliteracies site, I was struck my its relevance to the work of one of my favorite contemporary writers, David Markson.
Over the years, Markson has whittled his story line from single, disaffected, possible lone humans talking about their possible fictional relationship with great artists to one shadowy “narrator” who simply repeats (or perhaps creates) the work of great artists and thinkers of the past and present. His most recent work, The Last Novel, is purportedly a compendium of writings, sayings, quotations, and paraphrases put together by Author, who may or may not be Markson (probably not). The book’s layout: no entry more than five lines. In “googling” David Markson, I came up with 33,700 hits, none of which was more than five lines (full disclosure: I didn’t go beyond about five screens to check). In both cases—Markson and Google—many entry lines were of uneven length.
To create his book, Markson has “collected work” from dozens of well-known people from various centuries and given them to us, his readers, in what was to me an unrecognizable hierarchy (if there is one at all: anyone have any ideas?). Which quotation is more important than the other? After searching through the vast storehouses available to him does Markson as “gatherer” have a hierarchy? And what the heck is Google’s hierarchy when IT does its own gathering, in a matter of microseconds, rather than years? Markson’s Boolean may be more advanced than a simple Google search but is our comfort with (even affection for) his book a reflection of our love of search engines?